Don’t be like me: if you think you might like to read The Calculating Stars, just buy this at the same time. Because otherwise you’ll get to the end of the first and you’ll be forced to cry NOOOO and shake your first at the sky because you can’t go immediately on to this.
Trust me on this. (Also I can’t believe I didn’t review Stars when I read it. Oops.)
Elma York is a scientist and a pilot. There’s a dreadful catastrophe on Earth in 1952, and from that point history is different from our history, because humanity’s attempts to get to space happen much, much faster, from necessity rather than hubris or curiosity.
York is female, and Jewish. It’s the female bit that leads to most of her personal difficulties; it seems to me that Kowal pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the sexism of the 1950s and 60s. I often found it distressing to read about. And it’s not only that which is distressing. There’s also the racism: York herself, while not actively racist, is complicit in the systemic racism of her time because so often she simply isn’t aware of the experiences of the not-white folks around her. And her attempts to ‘help’ are often blundering. I do like that Kowal shows York learning from her mistakes – sometimes because she is actively shown what she has done, or what society has done; sometimes she thinks her way there personally. She’s certainly never perfect, though – she’s a product of her times.
And then, in terms of things that can be hard to read about, York also suffers from anxiety. Although I do not myself suffer from it, it was reading about this that perhaps affected me most. The way it physically affects her, and the way those around her react, and the reasons for it existing or being exacerbated. Kowal writes about it exquisitely (said the person for whom it is largely unfamiliar, so take that into account).
I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.
I don’t want to spoil either book, so I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but of course humanity’s efforts to reach space and work there are more successful in the books than in real life; otherwise there wouldn’t be two books (AND, so excite, at least two more planned!!) about it. But it’s fair to say that there is no plain sailing – which is as you would expect from Kowal, frankly, and indeed from any early-space-reaching novel attempting verisimilitude.
I love these books with a great passion. They tore at my heart, and made me angry for the way people are stupid for stupid reasons; they made me happy for the fact that there are good people, too, striving to do what is right and sometimes failing but also keeping on going, often in the face of terrible opposition. I love Kowal’s writing and I love the pacing of these stories and I cannot, cannot wait to read more set in this world.